Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Actually writing the check

Today is a big day for me, and one that seems long overdue. I donated to Women for Women International, both on behalf of my closest girlfriends, in place of a Christmas present, and in my name, by sponsoring a woman for a year. Scores of individuals donate money to an international organization each year, so I know I am not alone in this, nor have I given a particularly substantial amount. In fact I don't feel entirely satisfied now that I have actually carried out the donation. Why it has taken me so long to do so, and the source of my ambivilance about, is what I am interested in exploring.

In other words, I'm not as interested in why people give charitably to others, but rather why not. And since I can't carry out a large study from my perch on the couch today, I will settle with exploring my own motivations, and hope that at least some of them are common to others.

The first hurdle that comes to mind is activation energy. As day-to-day life unfolds, I often lack that extra boost that is needed to stop whatever else I am doing, focus on selecting an appropriate charity, and carry out the steps, including locating the ever-evasive postage stamp if the solicitation has come in the mail, necessary to actually give. In the age of the internet, I can't really blame stamps, but I do think that information overload plays an increasingly important role.

For me specifically, I began thinking seriously about supporting an international women's charity much earlier this year, when I read Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn's book, Half the Sky. This husband-and-wife team of journalists tells the story of dozens of women around the world who have been affected by sex trafficing or forced prostitution, gender-based violence and maternal mortality, and they make the case that addressing these 3 critical issues is central to unleashing the economic and social potential of men and women worldwide in the next century. They helped me overcome the daunting task of selecting a worthy charity by providing a short list of reputable organizations, which is how I came to choose Women for Women.

Okay, so in this instance, Kristof and WuDunn helped me solve the activation energy problem, and the ability to donate online also made it easier. But in my mind there are other, less tangible reasons why I don't give that are larger barriers than the "I have alot going on" excuse. For example: pessimism that my small donation will make any bit of difference to such a big problem; guilt that I haven't given more in the past; lack of direct feedback to motivate me to give again; worry that most of the donated money will go to organizational and overhead costs rather than the intended recipients themselves.

For me, I decided to try sponsoring a woman for a year because it will address at least one of these concerns. As part of my pledge, I will exchange letters with a specific woman in one of the dozen or so countries served by this charity, and receive (and give) direct feedback. I think this will be both a challenge and a great learning opportunity for me over the coming year. It's something I've never done before, and I'm excited to see how it plays out. Hopefully it will make me more inclined to get involved in the future as well.

Particularly with a toddler and a new baby on the way, I find it frighteningly easy to become more and more self-absorbed in daily life, both individually and as a family. And without pauses for reflection such as this one, how can I expect otherwise? So here's to the holiday spirit - just write the check!

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